Times Past

What do you know about the San Luis Obispo Mission? Find out more in upcoming classes

Father Fermín Lasuén’s statue at artist Jo Mora’s Serra Cenotaph in Carmel Mission where Lasuén is buried alongside St. Junípero Serra.
Father Fermín Lasuén’s statue at artist Jo Mora’s Serra Cenotaph in Carmel Mission where Lasuén is buried alongside St. Junípero Serra.

While praying in a ruined church at San Damiano, St. Francis heard a voice telling him, “Rebuild my Church.”

Francis took the message literally and began repairing the fallen little church. He came to understand that the “church” Christ was calling him to rebuild was really the “people of God,” healing a broken humanity in a spiritual sense. Nevertheless, physically repairing churches also remained a part of the Franciscan tradition.

Fray Fermín Lasuén, Junípero Serra’s successor as Father Presidente of the Franciscan Missions in California, earned a reputation as “the builder of missions.” He oversaw the construction of nine missions between 1786 and 1797.

Lasuén’s career as a builder began when the Kumeyaay Indian uprising and the murder of Father Luís Jayme at Mission San Diego left that mission in ruins. Lasuén was starting construction at San Juan Capistrano when news of the unrest caused his return to San Diego.

Then, on the night of Nov. 29, 1776, a disastrous fire destroyed the entire Mission San Luis Obispo. Shortly after Christmas 1776, Serra and Lasuén met at the ruins of the recently burned mission at San Luis Obispo.

Lasuén accepted the assignment of supervising the rebuilding of our Mission between Jan. 8 and March 7, 1777. He may have directed the making of some of the first fired clay tiles here. However, the tiles were very tedious to make. The roof of the rebuilt church was tule, just like the earlier church that burned. Roofing the mission with fire resistant tiles had to wait for production to catch up.

Father Francisco Palóu’s (1723–1789) Noticias de la Nueva California (translated as Historical Memoirs of New California) are regarded among the most reliable primary sources for documenting early mission life. Yet a misunderstanding of Palóu’s account of the fires at San Luis Obispo contributed to the creation of a fable. Palóu seems to suggest that the use of fired clay roof tiles first began at San Luis Obispo. In fact, a letter by Serra, dated December 8, 1781, indicates that tiles were first used at Mission San Antonio.

For many years, San Luis Obispans took pride in the fable of being first in the use of the iconic Mission fired clay roof tiles. Local “experts” would describe how Native American women molded the clay on their thighs -- a most immodest industry considering concerns of the Franciscan Padres over the possibilities of illicit acts between female neophytes and the members of the mission escolte or soldier-guards.

The tiles were made according to a technique that is as old as Mediterranean culture, employing wooden molds. They were not used at first in the Missions, because their production requires both skill and patience.

I’m certain that the myths about the origin and manufacture of the tiles will persist so long as a mission building remains standing, but that doesn’t stop us from trying to correct the legend.

The Old Mission San Luis Obispo docent group is looking forward to its annual training sessions starting April 7. Every year, we hold four Saturday morning training sessions in the spring. Our goal is to train potential new docents and provide a refresher course for our existing team. But even if you can’t be a docent, we’d like to invite you to join us in our sharing of the riches from San Luis Obispo’s past.

This year’s sessions are as follows:

Week 1: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 7 in the Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll be focusing on the pre-Mission era.

Week 2: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 14 in Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll be describing the Mission period (1768-1832).

Week 3: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 21 in the Old Mission Parish Hall. I’ll focus on the Mexican and American Era (1832–present).

Week 4: 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. April 28 in Old Mission Parish Hall. Michael LaFreniere will do a sample tour and have graduation for our new docents.

This column is by Dan Krieger. Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.